Top 25 breakout players of 2015
With opening night of college football merely days away, we’re here to break down the players that stood out in limited time during the 2014 season, and are poised to generate a significant impact in 2015.
1. Derrick Henry | RB | Alabama Crimson Tide
2014 snaps: 340
2014 PFF rating: 82.1
Alabama will look to replace nine offensive starters, but they will return with Henry leading their offensive attack. Henry broke one tackle every 5.58 rushing attempts (61.6 elusive rating) and only fumbled once among 172 rushing attempts. With an 81.4 PFF rush and 78.8 receiving rating, Henry will quickly surge to consideration as one of top of the backs in the country.
2. Ryne Reeves | Center | Nebraska Cornhuskers
2014 snaps: 310
2014 PFF rating: 81.8
Furnishing the Cornhuskers with the 17th-best overall grade among the nations returning centers, Reeves did not allow a single sack, hit, or pressure among 109 pass blocking snaps in 2014. The departure of Mark Pelini hands over the starting job to Reeves and provides Tommy Armstrong Jr. with a stabilizing presence within the offensive line.
3. DeAngelo Brown | DT/NT | Louisville Cardinals
2014 snaps: 352
2014 PFF rating: 81.5
The top-interior defending breakout candidate returns to anchor last season’s 10th-rated rushing defense on the heels of an 83.3 PFF run-defense rating. His pass-rush productivity (8.0), if qualified, would have placed him 20th in the nation at the position, and speaks to the all-around potential of the redshirt junior.
4. Leonard Fournette | RB | LSU Tigers
2014 snaps: 322
2014 PFF rating: 81.0
Beginning with Week 7 — sans an embarrassing Week 12 shutout against Arkansas — Fournette was either provided with 20+ carries, produced 140+ yards, or (Week 8 vs. UK) took an early seat after LSU completely annihilated their opponent. Fournette and his 79.2 PFF rush rating are poised to force their way into the national spotlight.
5. Deshaun Watson | QB | Clemson Tigers
2014 snaps: 333
2014 PFF rating: 80.2
Watson’s precision passing placed him fifth in completion percentage (67.9), 19th in accuracy percentage (74.8), and posted the nations highest NFL QBR when in the pocket for 2.5 seconds or less (152.7). If he is able to remain upright for the entire season, Clemson could find themselves on the short-list of title contenders.
6. Chase Dutra | SS | Indiana Hoosiers
2014 snaps: 352
2014 PFF rating: 79.9
The most promising breakout-labeled defensive back surprisingly emerged from a team that finished with the 93rd-best run defense in 2014. Placing the fifth-best run stop percentage (12.5) within eight yards on the board earned Dutra a 79.9 PFF run defense rating and the significant placement on this list.
7. James Ross III | SLB | Michigan Wolverines
2014 snaps: 377
2014 PFF rating: 79.6
New head coach Jim Harbaugh was not only blessed with an iconic opportunity in Ann Arbor, he also inherited a gifted linebacker at the pinnacle of his collegiate career. Former Wolverine Jake Ryan produced in the 2014 season, but Ross was able to shadow his production on a per-snap basis. With a commanding 85.3 PFF run defense rating, the strong side of the defense is in capable hands.
8. Ryan Anderson | Edge Rusher | Alabama Crimson Tide
2014 snaps: 320
2014 PFF rating: 79.4
Flying well-under the radar, Anderson has the potential to become one of the top-edge defenders in the country. With a pass-rush productivity (12.1) greater than that produced by Beasley, Nate Orchard, and less than one percent lower than Joey Bosa’s, Anderson is simply bursting with potential.
9. Corey Clement | RB | Wisconsin Badgers
2014 snaps: 306
2014 PFF rating: 78.3
Losing Melvin Gordon in the first round of the draft would cripple most teams rushing attack, but the Badgers are blessed with a replacement that will keep the pro-style offense in high gear. Clement produced an impressive efficiency in both the run (75.6 PFF rating) and passing game (75.8) while providing the pass blocking ability (71.4) Gordon lacked.
10. Shaq Lawson | DE | Clemson Tigers
2014 snaps: 329
2014 PFF rating: 78.2
Clemson will field a top-flight edge rusher despite the loss of Vic Beasley, as Lawson’s role for the Tigers will explode following the departure of all but one of the starters from last year’s top-rated defense. More than capable of bearing the weight of that responsibility, Lawson produced an impressive 83.4 PFF run-defense rating with a run-stop percentage that would have placed him tied for first in the nation with qualified snaps.
11. Tyler Higbee | TE | Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
2014 snaps: 317
2014 PFF rating: 77.7
The former starting tight end for the Hilltoppers, Mitchell Henry, is currently vying for a roster spot on the Green Bay Packers. Left behind are 478 total snaps and a prime opportunity for Higbee to add his name to the list of 2016 NFL tight end prospects on the heels of a 79.8 PFF receiving rating. In Week 14 facing Marshall, Higbee emerged as a name-to-know after collecting all six catchable targets for three touchdowns. QB Brandon Doughty will have a new toy up the seam and will likely take full advantage.
12. Raekwon McMillan | MLB | Ohio State Buckeyes
2014 snaps: 489
2014 PFF rating: 77.2
After scoring a QB hit, two hurries, three tackles, two assists, and a stop in the championship game facing the Oregon Ducks, McMillan was earnestly rewarded with the starting middle linebacker spot for 2015. With Curtis Grant exhausting his eligibility, McMillan will see an uptick in snaps with sights set on providing his 14th-best run-stop percentage (10.3) among all returning 4-3 outside linebackers. The Buckeyes’ passing defense greatly improved during the second half of 2014, coinciding with the emergence of McMillan, and his 76.7 PFF pass-coverage rating.
13. Will Geary | DT/NT | Kansas State Wildcats
2014 snaps: 395
2014 PFF rating: 77.2
With the departure of three All-American awards, six All-Big 12 first-teamers, and five second-teamers from Bill Snyder’s squad, Geary’s continued production will be integral for Kansas State’s success this season. Plugging the middle opposing the gifted athletes of the Big 12, Geary placed 12th in the country with a 9.4 run-stop percentage. His ability to torment opposing quarterbacks should not be overlooked considering he will bring the 27th-best pass-rush productivity (6.4) among returning inside defenders.
14. Kemoko Turay | DE | Rutgers Scarlet Knights
2014 Snaps: 330
2014 PFF rating: 77.2
One of the most well-rounded defenders making the list, Turay brings the distinction of producing the highest pass-rush productivity (19.4) for a 3-4 outside linebacker in the nation last season. Only 27 players at his position returning in 2015 furnished a higher combined tackle efficiency (9.5), a balance earning Turay a 78.1 PFF run defense and 77.3 pass rush rating.
15. Emmanuel Moseley | CB | Tennessee Volunteers
2014 snaps: 370
2014 PFF rating: 76.6
Presented is a cornerback who fought his way through depth under a snap limitation that emerged in Knoxville, but Moseley amazingly did his work as a true freshman. Seriously, how much of an impact could an 18-year-old really have had in defensive coverage? He simply allowed a lower completion percentage (36.0 vs. 43.9), yards/coverage snap (0.66 vs. 0.68), and coverage snap/reception allowed (12.1 vs. 13.6) than Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves III. The sky is the limit for this sophomore out of Greensboro, North Carolina.
16. Tracy Howard | CB | Miami Hurricanes
2014 snaps: 391
2014 PFF rating: 76.0
Howard was provided with greater than 30 snaps in only six games last season, but the graduation of Ladarius Gunter to the Green Bay Packers allows the senior the chance he needs to put his talents on display. Perhaps a 75.8 PFF coverage and 78.6 run defense rating leaves you unconvinced, but consider that Howard impressively allowed a lower yards/coverage snap (0.85) than Quinten Rollins, Trae Waynes, and Marcus Peters last season.
17. Luke Falk | QB | Washington State Cougars
2014 snaps: 353
2014 PFF rating: 75.9
Falk began his college career with scholarship offers pulled by both Florida State and Wyoming, as well as flipping his scholarship commitment to Cornell for an opportunity to walk onto Mike Leach’s Washington State roster. He responded to an opportunity to start mid-season, following Connor Halliday’s leg fracture, by posting a 78.7 PFF pass rating after averaging 448.3 passing yards/game. With a receiving group consisting of River Cracraft, Dom Williams, Gabe Marks, and (recently declared eligible) Clemson-transfer Kyrin Priester, the immediate future looks very bright for Falk and the Cougars.
18. Rob Bain | DT/NT | Illinois Fighting Illini
2014 snaps: 381
2014 PFF rating: 75.4
Making a name for yourself anchoring the middle of the defensive line is a difficult task, yet Bain is on the verge of doing just that with the 25th-highest returning pass rushing pressure percentage (6.8) at the position. Equally as impressive, consider that his PFF pass-rush rating (75.4) was nearly matched by a 75.1 run defense rating. Big things are ahead in Champaign, that is, unless you are a running back looking to attack the Illinois A-gaps.
19. Jake Kearney | SLB | California Golden Bears
2014 snaps: 325
2014 PFF rating: 75.3
When your team averages 81.3 plays per game, seventh-highest in the FBS, the opportunities on defense will be plentiful and provide ample occasion to evaluate a defender. After 325 sophomore snaps, it is safe to say that Kearney stood up to the test considering his 79.6 PFF run defense and 75.1 coverage rating. Even with Jalen Jefferson, Michael Barton, and Hardy Nickerson Jr. at linebacker, California named the emerging junior as their starting SAM linebacker for the coming season.
20. Cethan Carter | TE | Nebraska Cornhuskers
2014 snaps: 367
2014 PFF rating: 74.3
Carter gifted Nebraska with an 86.1 PFF pass-block rating (zero pressures allowed) last season, and the team should be able to return the favor in 2015. The addition of head coach Mike Riley, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and their variation of the pro-style offense has proven beneficial to the tight end position. Both have NFL coaching experience and, last season, they rewarded their starting tight end with 37.7 percent of his total routes out of the Y-position, where he saw 37.7 percent of total targets. With a 70.7 PFF receiver rating and an increase in targets, the junior from New Orleans, Louisiana should quickly establish himself as an offensive weapon for Nebraska.
21. Curtis Samuel | RB/H-back | Ohio State Buckeyes
2014 snaps: 174
2014 PFF rating: 73.9
If not for the absolutely ridiculous season furnished by Ezekiel Elliott, the country could be discussing the 2014 exploits of Samuel if he had been given the same opportunity. Not only was he impressive with the ball in his hands, but Samuel also generated the 10th-best blocking grade among all returning halfbacks. Amazingly, he actually proved superior to Elliott in shedding tackles after missing one every 3.9 rushing attempts (91.5 elusive rating). A move to H-back will open up opportunities for valuable touches and let the public in on Urban Meyer’s best-kept secret.
22. Trevor Davis | WR/KR | California Golden Bears
2014 snaps: 367
2014 PFF rating: 72.2
A healthy Davis would be a welcomed sight for the Golden Bears after he suffered a scary neck injury in Week 8 against UCLA that affected him for the remainder of the season. After building a rapport with Goff, evidenced by a 112.6 WR rating, the split end efficiently utilized each snap in route to post a highly productive 1.93 yards/route run. In addition, Davis posted the third-best kickoff return average in the NCAA with a 34.0/return mark and was able to take two to the house.
23. Mike Bercovici | QB | Arizona State Sun Devils
2014 snaps: 363
2014 PFF rating: 71.1
In three games as the starter against UCLA, at USC, and Stanford, Bercovici averaged 415.0 passing YPG, with a 61.9 completion percentage, and 9 touchdowns to two interceptions. Possessing one of the strongest arms in the nation, Bercovici showcased solid pocket awareness by completing 46.5 percent of his passes whilst under pressure, and proving difficult to sack (15.7 sack percentage).
24. Devante Bond | LB| Oklahoma
2014 snaps: 305
2014 PFF rating: 70.2
The Sooners inserted Bond into the starting lineup late in the season in place of Geneo Grissom and he did not disappoint. The impressive run defender earned a 77.9 PFF run-defense rating thanks to a team-high 8.3 run stop percentage that would have finished within the top five in the nation, if afforded qualifying snaps. With Grissom looking to make the New England Patriots roster, Bond will see a significant role on an emerging defense.
25. Cardale Jones | QB | Ohio State Buckeyes
2014 snaps: 373
2014 PFF rating: 67.2
Very little introduction is necessary for Jones after he led the Buckeyes to a championship title last year. While it may seem frivolous to include him on a “breakout” list, his snap count actually qualifies under our guidelines. “Twelve Gauge” not only engineered Ohio State to wins over Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon, but he did so behind a 101.62 PFF QBR that made him one of only five quarterbacks in the NCAA with a 100+ rating on at least 115 passing attempts. While the current competition with J.T. Barrett is unsettled, Jones is equipped with the better arm and poise under pressure (114.8 vs. 67.2 NFL QBR).